The Music of Chucalissa

By Sam Gibbs

What is one thing that most people have in common?  If you take time to think, you may discover that most people love music.  In fact, all cultures around the world have some form of music – for entertainment, educational purposes, or sports events. Music is a big part of the C.H. Nash Museum, and if you have visited lately, you may have noticed quite a bit of it playing.  We have music playing on a sound system in our exhibit gallery, in our African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis exhibit, and even in our introduction video.  We also have a hands-on musical instrument exhibit, in which visitors of all ages love to partake.

So, why have music in the C.H. Nash Museum?  Music in museums is a topic not uncommon among museum professionals.  I notice many professionals use music to fill a quiet void in exhibit galleries, hallways, or even to accompany text.

Although this is one reason why we play Native American music in our exhibit gallery, the staff looks at music as being a major attribute of all of the cultures interpreted in our exhibits.  Native Americans, historic Memphians, and people of today all listen and love music.  However, studying music has shown more than just a person’s personal preference in sound.  Studying a culture’s music provides a gateway into learning about its spiritual beliefs, relationships with environments, ceremonies, types of food, and much more.

When I first came to the museum, my initial project was to design an educational program. There was very little musical information in the museum, so I decided to create a program framework discussing prehistoric Southeastern Native American music.  I say “framework” because I did not do this on my own.  I asked the rest of the staff at the museum and members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians for their input.  Because of this, the music program went from being a simple PowerPoint with basic photos of instruments to a hands-on program with real instruments and stories from the Choctaw culture.

Sam teaching the rest of the staff how to properly play the drum!

Today we hold drumming circles for groups, which allow visitors to participate in the historical musical traditions of Native American and other cultures.  We also discuss types of Choctaw dances and their relationship with nature.  Did you know that the Choctaw performed specific dances to show respect for animals?  According to Choctaw tradition, when one performs one of the animal dances, any animal mentioned will gather to watch and listen to the dance.

A group of museum visitors engaging in a drumming circle out on the plaza.

One great example of the importance of music appeared during work on the African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis project, detailed in this post.  Many of the high school students working on the project referred to Memphis’ rich musical history.  They decided to research Southwest Memphis’ music history and interviewed Bobbie Jones, Isaac Hayes’s music teacher, who gave them a private concert on her piano.  The twenty minute documentary that accompanies the exhibit details different types of musical traditions from Southwest Memphis, including an explanation of Jug Band instruments.

At Chucalissa, music that accompanies our exhibits gives visitors a closer glimpse into Native American culture, and even provides the staff a chance to show our musical skills by way of playing the drums.  The next time you visit Chucalissa, be sure to pay attention to the musical aspects.  Maybe you can create a new song on our collections of drum!

Samantha Gibbs is the Administrative Assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa

About C.H. Nash Museum

The mission of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, a division of the University of Memphis, is to protect and interpret the Chucalissa archaeological site’s cultural and natural environments, and to provide the University Community and the Public with exceptional educational, participatory, and research opportunities on the landscape’s past and present Native American and traditional cultures.
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